WHEELING - Hockey has been around the "Friendly City" long before the Wheeling Thunderbirds (now Nailers) came to the Ohio Valley.
The Wheeling Amateur Hockey Association (WAHA) is celebrating its 50th anniversary (1964-2014) this year. In honor of that coveted milestone, a reunion of sorts will be held at the Wheeling Park White Palace on Saturday, Aug. 23. The public is invited to come reminisce and re-connect with all of their hockey friends, past team members and coaches.
WAHA has an interesting half-century of history, according to board member Dick Riley.
Bob Otten, the founder of WAHA was a real hockey enthusiast. He played hockey for the N.J. Rovers, then a farm team for the New York Rangers. After leaving hockey, Otten served as a hockey referee for both the American and International Hockey Leagues. He was selected as a standby referee for the 1980 US Olympic team in Lake Placid, N.Y., when the USA first beat the Russians and went on to win the gold medal.
A native of Newark, N.J., Otten came to Wheeling in 1946 to accept a position as Director of Oglebay Institute. That's where he first met Randy Worls. At that time, Worls was the general manager of the Wheeling Park Commission.
Otten later left Wheeling and went on to graduate from Parsons School of Design in New York City. In 1950, he took a position with Stone & Thomas in Charleston, W.Va., then in 1962 he returned to Wheeling, taking a position with the Stone & Thomas store as vice president of the Design and Decorating Division. While in Charleston, he started a girls hockey team and his daughter, Georgette, played on that team. Otten also served as Creative Designer for Olgebay's Winter Festival of Lights, designing many of the light display.
An ice rink was installed at Wheeling Park and in 1962 Otten, with his love for hockey, put together a group of skaters to utilize the ice. The first year there were nine skaters - three being his sons. They met every Saturday morning at 6 and had sticks, skates and a few pucks. They used newspapers and magazines, secured with tape, for shin pads.
"By 1964 they had 24 boys and formed two teams - the Red Wings and Maple Leafs - and played each other all year," Riley explained. "Also in that year, they incorporated, forming the Wheeling Amateur Hockey Association. They also developed a code of conduct.
"The original board consisted of seven members. All dedicated and hard working. Each year these men and women would flood the rink, paint the complete floor white," Riley added. "They would measure and lay out the rink and paint the lines and logos. They would then add an additional -inch of water. Later they were able to purchase pre-cut decals.
"The first 25 years of hockey the rink was uncovered. No roof. The games were never canceled - rain or snow. Those that came played," Riley continued. "Many days we had to use shovels to push snow off to the side so the puck could slide without resistance. We had a great time, a lot of fun."
According to Riley, the first scoreboard consisted of two, 12-inch wooden circles with the numbers 1 through 10 printed on them. There was an arrow that the score keeper would move each time a goal was scored. The second scoreboard was lights from a pinball machine mounted on two circles that operated in the same fashion, except automatically as you just pushed a button.
"The first professional scoreboard was donated by the C & P Telephone Co. and installed by Bob Shephard," Riley noted.
Within several years, WAHA grew to a dozen teams. There were four pee-wee teams, four bantam teams and four high school teams
"Projects like the Hockey Hop and dinners were held to raise money. We purchased and furnished uniforms for all players. The player furnished their skates, helmet and sticks," Riley said. "We furnished the balance of the equipment and the cost to play hockey for the year, including equipment, was $40.
"We had fun and everyone worked hard," he recalled. "We had pizza and beer parties when we collected and washed uniforms. The board members and a few parents took the equipment home and washed it and brought it to the rink wet and hung it up to dry."
Within a short period of time, WAHA had 24 teams, adding four girls' teams.
"We never turned down anyone who wanted to skate," Riley stressed. "Our age requirements did not follow USA Hockey guidelines. For instance, our Pee-Wee ages were 7 through 11, instead of USA classification of age 11 & 12.
"The first 20 years or so we had no Squirts, Mites of Mini Mites, (TimBits). One thing that helped WAHA grow was Bob's philosophy that every one skated equal time, regardless of ability. Teams and lines were chosen, using a 2-minute buzzer to change lines.
"Later on we added the Squirt Division and, at a later date, we added the Mites, and in the mid-1990s the Mini-Mites, later to be called the "TimBits" because Tim Horton's furnished the socks and jerseys for all skaters ages 4 through 6."
Up through the mid-1980s, WAHA annually had a sit-down banquet with coveted trophies for each division.
"Bob was always able to obtain a guest speaker form the Pittsburgh Penguins organization," Riley said.
Glass was added to the boards and in 1978, a roof and lighting were installed so that night games were able to be played.
During the beginning years, the second story of the White Palace was open and everyone hung out the open areas cheering on their team, according to Riley.
In 1985, WAHA had raised enough money to build the enclosed balcony on the second floor overlooking the ice. Also built was a scorers booth on the far side of the rink.
The Mites, ages 6-7, were also started that year.
In the mid-1990s things started to change, according to Riley.
"Wheeling Park High School approached the board about having their own team, so we had three WAHA teams and the Wheeling Park team. Later, travel teams started to develop. Other high school teams were formed, including Linsly, Wheeling Central, John Marshall and St Clairsville.
"In 1991, the Wheeling Thunderbirds came to town which had a great influence on our hockey program," Riley added. "Players like Tim Roberts, Brock Woods, Stefan Brannare and equipment manager Grant Van Laar married local girls, stayed in the area and became involved in our hockey program.
"Besides coaching our teams, they started programs such as speed skating and goalie clinics, skating drills, which greatly changed and improved the skating ability of our WAHA players, and the way they played the game."
WAHA, with the Squirts, Mites, and Tim Bits became a feeder system for the local high schools and travel teams.
While the Wheeling Park ice rink handled the in-house skaters and other training, high schools and travel squads played their games at WesBanco Arena.
"So hockey has changed over the years. We have grown, but we are still having great fun, and that's what made our hockey program grow," Riley concluded.
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